Tolerance vs. Acceptance

The other day, I got into a discussion with someone about how students are taught tolerance in school rather than acceptance. That hit home with me and got me thinking about the difference between tolerance and acceptance.

Of course we should be tolerant of others, right? If someone practices a different religion, has different political beliefs, is from a different country, is of a different race or ethnicity or a different sexual orientation, we should have tolerance for those differences. We have museums of tolerance which remember events such as the Holocaust, and students are taught in school to tolerate others different from them.

Curious about the actual definition of tolerance, I dipped into my old paper version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition). Here are two definitions of tolerance that I think apply:

2a: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own

2b: the act of allowing something: TOLERATION

Sympathy and indulgence seem like good qualities. But when we’re being sympathetic to those different from ourselves, it’s almost as if we are sympathizing with their wrongness. We know in many cases the person can’t help being different (they can’t change their skin color or how they might be disabled, for instance). So we sympathize with the fact that they came out wrong.

By the same token, being indulgent of those differences seems terribly patronizing. Again, it’s as if we know in reality that the other person is wrong in believing differently, in being of a different ethnicity, of being gay or disabled. Nevertheless, we tolerate, we indulge that difference.

What if instead we were to practice acceptance of those different from ourselves? What would that look like? Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines acceptance:

3: the act of accepting : the fact of being accepted : APPROVAL

Approval. What would it be like if we not only tolerated those different from us, but approved of them? What if we approved and accepted them as they are, without conditions, without any sense that different=wrong? What if that were what children were taught in school, if those museums were museums of acceptance? Somehow it makes my heart lighter just thinking about it.

But, you might say, I don’t agree with their politics. I don’t agree with their religion. But here’s the thing. Acceptance does not equal agreement. We can accept someone’s different way of thinking or believing, but we don’t have to agree with it. We can even love them despite our disagreement. And of course we must accept physical differences because why would we not? That’s just another way of being.

So yes, tolerance at a minimum. But acceptance, giving up that sense of wrongness in the “other,” is to me the real goal.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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19 Responses to Tolerance vs. Acceptance

  1. alicebeesley says:

    A worthy goal. I don’t expect people to agree with my differences, but would like to still be accepted for or despite them, and I try and hope I am doing the same for others.

  2. adamgaylord says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    In the words of Mr. Garrison (South Park), “Tolerate means you’re just putting up with it! You tolerate a crying child sitting next to you on the airplane or, or you tolerate a bad cold.”

    Acceptance is a much better goal.

  3. I think acceptance is tolerance but simply the most pure simple and base form of it.

  4. Kevin Blackburn says:

    Hi there, I did a search on tolerance vs acceptance because of a recent insight i had and was pleased to find and read your essay. It absolutely struck home.

    One of my personal qualities that I am not proud of is my internal critic that aims its finger at others. For the longest time, I have redirected my critical and judgmental thinking patterns by silently saying something akin to, “don’t judge”. One recent realization is that it is hard to do something that doesn’t exist. Not judging isn’t a behavior or thought but the absence of one. This is where I am finding that Accept is some thing I can do that creates a shift away from the critical.

    The other part of is that, as a kid, it wasn’t that I wanted people to like me as much as accept me. Like tends to be more about agreement, but Accept is so much more unconditional.

    Of course, the tragic irony to me is that those people that I have been critical/judgmental toward, whose beliefs, body type, and other ways of being I didn’t LIKE or AGREE with, really want the same thing I do- just acceptance. In them, I am starting to see the 12 year old boy I was and am giving up the need for them to be so agreeable.

    Funny, isn’t it?

    • karensandler says:

      Kevin, it sounds like you had some great insights. Judging others is something I struggle with as well, and I do my best to move to acceptance when I catch myself judging.

  5. Cylie says:

    I am amazed at the intellectual level of the comments generated. I am writing an essay for my English composition class regarding the gay rights movement and I am investigating the differences between tolerance and acceptance. I just wanted to thank you for the enlightenment.

  6. Reblogged this on The Picture Book Pusher and commented:
    This hits home. Especially around the holidays, a school’s position on the “Tolerance vs. Acceptance” scale may be more visible.

  7. Kristi says:

    I too have been pondering the relationship between acceptance and tolerance… I am looking at it from a little different perspective.

    If we teach that acceptance is a decision, and with that acceptance comes responsibilities and requirements, it becomes a much deeper commitment. What we need to define in our teachings is acceptance has accountability. This is when true growth and understanding takes place. When one is not taught how to understand the use of acceptance in life, tolerance is usually the default that many operate by. Unfortunately, the expectancy of tolerance is all around us and is actually being defined as acceptance. Let’s teach and live these two words separately and stand for what we truly mean.

  8. Amit Katyal says:

    “Acceptance AND Tolerance not VS”

    For the most part, we humans accept and welcome friends from different backgrounds, lifestyles, cultures etc but in some cases we don’t accept (approve of) the part that makes us different, but instead we practice tolerance. This is not necessarily bad or wrong, which some people make it out to be. Mostly, this is true when it comes to religious beliefs and\or sexual preferences. This is where I think there needs to be a balance between “acceptance” and “tolerance” and a clear understanding of both. These are not mutually exclusive but they are certainly different, and both are needed.

    For example, I am a Christian and I have friends that are Muslims. We obviously accept each other as friends but don’t accept the other person’s religious belief. In fact, both sides firmly believe that the other is simply wrong. My Muslim friends believe it’s blasphemy to say that Jesus is God and as a Christian I believe that He IS God. So we don’t accept the other’s belief but we practice tolerance when it comes to this. There is no pre-condition here that I must or they must stop believing in what they believe or accept (approve of) this difference before we can be friends. For us, this is the necessary mix of acceptance and tolerance. Tolerance is the key ingredient here. By the way, this doesn’t mean we don’t have discussions (and\or arguments) about our differences, we have plenty of those. However, this mix allows us to be friends, get to know each other, influence each other at times, be there for each other, all without compromising our beliefs.
    I guess, when people start pushing for “acceptance only” and start looking at tolerance as a bad thing, they are putting a condition on you to stop believing what you believe is wrong. It’s a conditional friendship, today it’s this and tomorrow it will be something else. Why can’t we accept without also accepting (approving of) which we believe is wrong? Why must we abandon tolerance all together and switch to this new trend of “acceptance only” system? Just think where would the world be without tolerance, if acceptance was the only way???

    Be cautious! Understand the differences between acceptance and tolerance, they are not the same and both are needed.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I too have been parsing this out in my head. As a high school teacher, I can’t mandate acceptance, as it seems more the internal (meaningful?) and personal process; though I do find myself making this distinction when students behave intolerantly. As a socially necessary behavior, this can be mandated and defined. I find even acceptance being condescending though because it implies that right to evaluate and approve of a behavior, trait, etc. These days I find myself striving to be grateful and appreciative of the diversity around me. Diversity provides such a deeper well for understanding, problem solving, and entertainment…

    • karensandler says:

      You make some good points. I can see that one might have a condescending attitude and think it’s acceptance of someone. But the kind of acceptance I’m thinking about (hoping for) is in the heart, and truly felt. Maybe not even voiced verbally, but shown by action (how the other is treated). That’s my rose-colored glasses view, anyway.

  10. Found your post today in looking up the proper way to describe how people are expressing disgust with today’s Jason Collins coming out announcement. I don’t mean to make a political billboard statement, but it’s very sad to see the negative comments being thrown out on the Sports Illustrated website (

    I keep seeing people’s comments that describe the United States’ movement toward gay rights as “making us weaker than the rest of the world”. From the all of the personal, business, and even sports advice I’ve heard in my 25 years, an individual can only succeed once they truly know and love themselves. Shouldn’t the same be said for a large group, or a country? Tolerance is what many people are doing under their breath, holding their tongues about their negative feelings about gay rights. Acceptance is what public figures voicing support of Collins’ announcement are doing.

    The sooner people accept the need for happiness of those on their team, in their community, or throughout their country, the sooner they can solve problems that bring the overall happiness of the group down.

  11. karensandler says:

    Andrew, feel free to use my blog as a billboard for acceptance. When I read your comments, I wanted to pump my fist and shout yes! You have nailed the tolerance vs. acceptance issue on the head.

    I’m of an age/generation that would probably not be expected to champion gay rights and marriage equality. But I had a big circle of gay friends back in high school, so I learned at a young age that “the other” wasn’t so much “the other.” They were just my friends. Half the members of my first writer’s critique group were gay/lesbian, and they wrote GLBTQ fiction, furthering my immersion. And it’s no great leap for me from acceptance of GLBTQ to wider acceptance of any culture/ethnicity/etc. that’s different than me.

    Thanks for your comment.

  12. Baltej S. Dhillon says:

    Thank you Karen and completely agree . I too have been advocating on the notion and maturing ourselves to acceptance. Its not necessary to agree with the beliefs of our neighbours but we can accept that they accept their beliefs as their truth .. As long as their beliefs , lifestyle is not harmful to anyone, is compassionate and kind but just different than what I am accustomed to then my conscious efforts are towards acceptance and not tolerance.

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